At 3 am last Friday night, I sat exhausted and angry on a shuttle bus from LaGuardia Airport to Staten Island. My connecting flight had been canceled after six hours of delays and not a small amount of incompetence on the part of the airline. They were finally sending me and my fellow stranded passengers to what seemed like the most remote hotel in New York City. As I watched the illuminated skyline pass by the shuttle window, I noticed the Statue of Liberty, dwarfed by the buildings of lower Manhattan but distinct against the black harbor, come into view.
Just two days earlier, Donald Trump posse member and white nationalist, Stephen Miller, had derided the sentiments of “The New Colossus,” the famous poem by Emma Lazarus emblazoned on the statue that captures the pro-immigrant symbolism of the lady in New York Harbor. I am not from the New York area, but, like millions of other Americans, I am the descendant of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, the historic immigration center which for decades the statue stood guard over. I had never been to the island, but as I suddenly and unexpectedly found myself with some time to kill in New York, it seemed like an opportune time to make the trip.
After two hours of bad sleep and watching twenty minutes of anti-immigrant propaganda on Fox News in my hotel lobby, I rode the Staten Island ferry to Battery Park to pick up a packed tourist ferry to Ellis Island. The ferry passengers could not have been more diverse. Americans and foreign nationals of all shades and background squeezed together on the top and outer decks of the boat on that gray Saturday morning. As we approached the Statue of Liberty, we all lifted our phones and cameras above our heads, seemingly in unison, vying for a clean shot.
Bleary eyed, and somewhat appropriately weighed down with luggage, I disembarked onto Ellis Island, which is now run as a national park. I made my way up to the second floor to see the iconic registry room and began to work my way through the exhibits that occupy the smaller rooms on either end of the massive central hall.
In the expertly curated and densely packed galleries on Ellis Island I found an unfiltered, unapologetic, historically-based argument against racist immigration policies. The exhibits, which pre-date the current administration, force visitors to come face to face with the racism and xenophobia directed against new immigrants to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century. They include a stark black and white wall warning against the supposed dangers of unrestricted immigration. The language, taken from a period publication, could be seamlessly spliced into the propaganda of Miller and his ilk.
Though nearly a century has passed since immigration at Ellis Island and the xenophobia it sparked among natural-born, white American citizens peaked, the parallels with the present are pervasive and striking. At the time, white nationalists warned about the dangers of people practicing “foreign religions”- Jews and Catholics.
Catholicism was viewed as a dangerous religion restricting the freedom of women, with it sights set on world domination. Catholic immigrants were not to be trusted. Other immigrants, such as the Chinese on the West Coast, were supposedly coming to the country to take jobs away from hard working Americans.
Southern and Eastern European immigrants were characterized as “races of people” who could and would never assimilate with “English-speaking” people. They were derided as illiterate and inherently inferior.
After America became involved in World War I, the loyalties of immigrants, German immigrants in particular, were constantly questioned.
But, not all native-born Americans were xenophobic. Some organized against restrictions on immigration.
When quotas and other restrictions on immigration were introduced, the initial result was chaos at the borders.
In addition to the permanent exhibit, the staff at Ellis Island has offered other refutations of America’s current xenophobia. From last summer through January of this year, a temporary exhibition on New York’s now lost Little Syria neighborhood was held in the space.
Despite present day debates, we have a very long history of welcoming the Syrian people to America. pic.twitter.com/my2DKo0uiV
— Daniel Fell (@danfell) October 14, 2016
The exhibits at Ellis Island expose the deep hypocrisy of those proposing these restrictions. Miller is descended from Ashkanazi Jewish immigrants, Trump from German immigrants. One hundred years ago the ancestors of both these men, as well as my Catholic-Slavic immigrant ancestors (who happened to be Slovenian, like Trump’s wife Melania), would have been labeled traitorous, dangerous, and/or racially inferior.
While Trump and Miller have no qualms about their hypocrisy, the rest of us must acknowledge and fight against America’s cyclical xenophobia. The Ellis Island exhibitions, with their deep dive into America’s history of xenophobia and immigration restrictions in late 19th and early 20th century America, provide a great starting point. I encourage everyone in or traveling to the New York area to take a trip to Ellis Island to arm themselves with the knowledge to fight against the xenophobia overtaking this country, yet again.